IIf I could tell you just one thing that you need to understand about building websites, I’d tell you that they aren’t real. You can’t hold, smell or lick a website. While this seems basic if not absurd, it’s a distinction that I’ve found myself repeating throughout my career because without physicality that engages our senses, it’s difficult to know a thing’s shape.
When I’m trying to build a great web experience that people can engage with, I start by understanding the context. So, let’s take a quick existential dip and ask: what is a website?
Definitions immediately focus on the technical nature of websites: domains, programming languages, hyperlinks, servers and so on. They answer what’s involved, but they don’t explore the context people find themselves in when they a visit a website.
Websites are not a book in your hand or a flower you stop to smell or a piece of cake in your mouth. So, what are they?
Websites are an abstraction. What’s an abstraction? I gave it away in the title: websites are the recipe, not the cake. They’re the map, not the road.
How do we make an abstraction, especially one without physicality, engaging? How do we make something that is inherently intangible and nebulous approachable?
Show And Then Tell
We ground our visitors with a simple technique most learn in elementary school: we show and then we tell. There’s a quote by Anton Chekhov that perfectly embodies this distinction:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass” – Anton Chekhov
There’s a clear difference between showing and telling. Showing is taking the time to ground and immerse your audience. Telling gives directions. Telling is your sitemap, navigation or even a tagline.
For instance, if you visit Think Shift’s career’s page, we tell you our values: accountability, stewardship, transparency and teamwork. Below we ground it by showing you quotes from our actual staff, with their picture, how we live our values.
We must balance showing and telling to create an engaging experience. If we only told you our values, we’d be double-stacking abstractions and everyone’s eyes would glaze over.
Here I am talking about double-stacking abstractions and I’ve yet to give you a concrete example, so let’s jump in—from the top ropes.
Airbnb vs VRBO: Show & Tell Cagematch
I recently used Airbnb’s website as a good example of showing and we need a contender, so enter: Vrbo. Two very similar companies/services, but they approach their customers quite differently. Let’s compare their homepages to see how they show and tell.
Airbnb’s mission is to “create a world where anyone can belong anywhere.” This is a worthy mission, so why isn’t that clearly written out on this homepage?
Because they’re showing us instead: real properties with real prices, available to me right now. How do we ground an abstraction? We don’t add more by giving out ethereal mission statements. We dunk the audience in as much reality as possible, as fast as possible.
There are almost no explicit directions on Airbnb’s homepage. The adventure starts with the homepage. They want you to explore. The only telling they’re doing is in the main horizontal menu, mixed with some grounding icons, so that you can sort different types of homes.
Outside of the images, the only other splash of colour comes in the logo and the search icon, which I’d say is quite a clever way to indicate weight. If you don’t like exploring via Airbnb’s layout, take control and start searching. But do note that search is not first. Airbnb shows you who they are and invites you, with many paths, to explore.
Isn’t the difference quite stark? First, we aren’t greeted by properties. We have a stock image of a mother and a child overlayed by telling us we can “Find your place for together” (say that out loud a few times and see if it makes sense to you). And they’re telling you that before you can see anything, you need to give them some information first (location, dates, guest). If you want to connect with our abstraction, we need more from you.
A little lower they have some common prompts for, presumably, typical searches that are done: dog friendly, swimming pools, or on the beach. You’re always at least a few actions away from connecting with anything real.
Vrbo’s homepage tells first and shows second. Airbnb shows first and trusts the audience to make their way with a few prompts.
You can see my bias in this. Like Airbnb, I lean in on show. It is the best way to set context for the audience and help them understand who you are and what you do. Going forward, remember that websites are abstractions of our organizations, products and people. We have to do the work to show our audiences who we are, but it needs to be in balance with telling and directing them through the experience.
Whether you’re putting your best foot forward with new customers or treating loyal ones to a consistent experience, UX should be a major focus of your brand’s online representation.